Ausmus’ former manager and GM predict success with Tigers
DETROIT — Phil Garner spent five years as Brad Ausmus’ manager, first in Detroit in 2000 and then again for four years in Houston, which included the Astros’ World Series run in 2005.
During a phone conversation from his home in Houston, it wasn’t easy for Garner to pick his favorite moment with Ausmus, the new manager of the Tigers.
For sure, Ausmus’ bottom-of-the-ninth homer that tied Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS, which the Astros won in 18 innings, was right up there.
"But the single most important thing Brad Ausmus said in his entire career is what got us to the World Series," Garner recalled.
The Astros had a three-games-to-one lead in the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals and were one out away from clinching a World Series berth at home. Then Albert Pujols hit a three-run homer to make the Cards 5-4 winners, sending the series back to St. Louis.
The stunning shot was a laser that pierced the confidence of the Astros.
"We were clearly down after being so high," Garner said. "On the plane ride to St. Louis, it was as quiet as a church. It was one hour of dead silence until the plane pulled up to maximum altitude and a voice came over the plane’s speakers.
"He (Ausmus) said, ‘This is your pilot speaking. We have a beautiful day ahead in St. Louis, and we’ll have you there soon. But if you look to your right, you will see the ball Albert Pujols hit last night. It’s still orbiting the earth.’
"That was Brad. Everybody went crazy on the plane, and we were laughing so hard. It was as important as anything that happened in that series. It turned the momentum back to us."
Houston’s Roy Oswalt beat Mark Mulder, 5-1, the next day, and the Astros were on their way to their first and only World Series appearance.
They got swept by the Chicago White Sox, but treasured reaching the Fall Classic as a wild-card entrant by beating a St. Louis team that finished 11 games ahead of them.
Ausmus — who spent 18 years as a major league catcher and three more in the San Diego Padres front office — knew exactly what to say, at just the right moment to help make it possible.
Garner believes that’s only one of the qualities that will make Ausmus a successful manager.
"Brad will tell you that I wasn’t really the manager of those Houston teams — he was," Garner said with a chuckle. "He was managing all along, but he knew the buck stopped with me.
"You know you are taking on that responsibility when you manage, but that will not be an issue with Brad. He will handle it. He’ll do a fabulous job."
When did Garner realize Ausmus would manage?
"Oh, right away," Garner said. "He absorbed everything, appreciated the game and had a sense for the game."
Randy Smith was the general manager of the Tigers in 2000, the year Garner and Ausmus first worked together. Smith will forever be associated with Ausmus because the GM was involved in acquiring the catcher three times and also trading him three times.
Four of those transactions came with the Tigers, and two when Smith was an assistant general manager for the Colorado Rockies from 1991-93.
"We got Brad from the New York Yankees in the expansion draft," said Smith, now the vice president of player development and international scouting for the Padres. "The only reason I kept trading him was to fill holes, but it was hard to see him go each time."
They worked together in the Padres front office the last three years.
"We still talk all the time," Smith said. "We worked together in San Diego and have a lot in common. We’ve had a relationship for 20 years, and I expect to carry on that relationship for another 20 years. He’s a special guy.
"He doesn’t need me to bang his drum, but Brad is going to be successful. They say he got a great job, but he’s got a tough job. There are great expectations in Detroit."
Smith and Garner were fired by current Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski after an 0-6 start in 2002. One year later, Detroit lost an American League-record 119 games.
Under manager Jim Leyland, the Tigers went to the World Series in 2006 and 2012, and have advanced to the ALCS the previous three seasons.
What traits and abilities will allow Ausmus to succeed in Detroit, where winning it all is all that matters?
If you can’t get along with Brad, there is something wrong with you. He’s very agreeable.
"Brad has a great feel for the game," Garner said. "But I’m not sure if his best quality as manager will be that or the touch he will have with players.
"He has a really good feminine side and is sensitive to other people. He has good radar and will sense issues. He will deal well with the things happening with players and social media.
"If you can’t get along with Brad, there is something wrong with you. He’s very agreeable."
Garner, who has been texting with Ausmus, congratulated him and said, "Now is my chance to second-guess you."
Garner laughed and added, "Brad has a tremendous sense of humor. He has a very dry wit that plays well in baseball."
Smith agreed, saying, "His wit is special. There will be a daily dose of jabs and sarcasm. You need to be on your toes with him.
"(San Francisco manager) Bruce Bochy is like that. And he can get his point across without hurting your feelings."
But there will be more to Ausmus’ approach than keeping things light.
"One thing for sure is that he’s not afraid to make a decision," Smith said. "Players will never see any doubt in him.
"He’s confident that if one move doesn’t work, his next one will. Brad has a short memory."